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Wood Engravings and Collage (III)

– Posted in: Aesthetics Articles Inspiration Tips & Techniques Wood Engravings

This article was first published as Wood Engravings and Collage (III) on Blogcritics.

The last postin this series discussed how lines and dots in wood engraving create the illusion of light and shade in three dimensions, and presented some sample illustrations. This post will explore how wood engravings became the preferred mode of image publication in the nineteenth century.

Why did wood engravings become popular? Partly because they made high-quality, illustrated newspapers, magazines, and books easily and inexpensively available for the first time.

Prior to the invention of wood engraving, publishers had to accept a trade-off: either publish books with relatively crude woodcut illustrations printed on the same page as the text, or insert high-quality illustrations during or after the binding process. At that time, fine illustrations (which were usually engravings or etchings) either had to be printed on their own separate pages and bound into books alongside type pages, or they were printed, trimmed, and “tipped in” — pasted — in spaces left for them on the type pages. Both processes were expensive and applied only to books; newspapers and magazines had to settle for low-quality woodcuts or no illustrations at all.

There were two reasons for this state of affairs:

  1. Technical limitations in printing made it impossible to print type simultaneously with etchings or engravings, because the etching/engraving plates required higher pressure to transfer their ink to paper than type did. Additionally, the surfaces of such plates needed to be wiped thoroughly clean of all excess ink (leaving ink only in the etched or engraved lines below the plate surfaces) before they could be printed. The cycle of inking and wiping the plate clean of excess ink had to be repeated before creating every copy of the print in the edition, making intaglio (“incised” or “engraved”) printing a slow and laborious process.
  2. Woodcuts could be printed on the same page with type, but looked rough and crude because the grain of the wood blocks made cutting them difficult to control.

Artists historically have used a fine-grained hardwood, like pearwood, for making woodcuts. The grain of the wood block runs parallel to the woodcut surface (“side grain“), usually along its length or width. This means that the carving of the lines will sometimes run parallel to (“along“) the wood grain, and other times will cross it. If the wood is very hard, cutting along the grain will be easier than cutting across it. Cutting cross grain causes the knife or gouge to be harder to control, possibly resulting in rough-edged cuts. The first European woodcuts were often very crude as a result of being made on side-grain wood blocks.

Two innovations ended the printing trade-off: the introduction of the rotary press and wood engraving.

The first rotary presses for relief letterpress printing were invented in the 1820’s. (Before the nineteenth century, printing presses worked by exerting downward pressure on the paper and the inked type, and were relatively slow.) Rotary presses allowed newspapers and books to be produced with greater speed and sharper detail than they could be on vertical presses. The woodcut illustrations then available lagged behind the quality of the letterpress, and metal etching and engraving plates could not print on rotary presses then available. But around this time an English clergyman-naturalist-artist named Thomas Bewick (pronounced “Buick”) had a brilliant idea: He used engraving gouges to cut images into the end-grain of a hardwood block. The end-grain is at right angles to the side-grain, and is in effect like no grain at all. (Imagine holding a hairbrush bristles-up: the closely-packed ends of the bristles are like the end-grain of wood, and it is easy to run the tip of your finger over them freely in any direction; in the same way, it is easy for an engraving gouge to cut smoothly in any direction on the surface of an end-grain wood block.)

Bewick’s invention of wood engraving allowed artists to produce finely detailed prints on wood blocks; if the blocks were “type-high” (the same thickness as the height of the type in a printing press bed) they could be locked in the press bed with the type and printed alongside it. This allowed finely detailed illustrations to be printed within a page of type for the first time. When wood engravings and type were combined in rotary printing presses, high-quality but inexpensive illustrated publications became a reality.

Later on, wood engravings made it possible to reproduce photographs in publications for the first time. The engraving block was covered with photosensitive emulsion, exposed to light under a glass photo negative, and the positive photo image developed and fixed on the block surface like a photograph on paper. The wood engraver would then engrave away all the white portions of the photographic image, carve variably spaced dots and lines to reproduce several shades of gray, and leave areas of solid black mostly untouched. This became the standard method of producing photographic images in print until the widespread use of the mechanical photoengraving process and the halftone screen in the 1890’s.

The heyday of wood engraving lasted nearly half a century, from the 1840’s through 1890. During that time, hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of different subjects were rendered as wood engravings and printed in thousands of books and periodicals. Fortunately, a great number of these survive today, and the engravings they contain have been reproduced in a variety of new publications; among the best of these are the many collections of engravings compiled by Jim Harter (links to his books can be found in the box to the right of this post).  Thanks largely to the efforts of Jim Harter and others,  the rich fund of wood engravings continues to inspire, fascinate, and provide source material for artists and lovers of art, now and in the future.

Draper's Observatory - highly detailed wood engraving

Draper’s Observatory – highly detailed wood engraving

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